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Nobelist's Voice Goes Beyond His Books

October 13, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Not so long ago, novelist Orhan Pamuk faced imprisonment in his homeland of Turkey. On Thursday, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for novels of rich melancholy that evoke what the Swedish Academy called "new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

A best-selling and provocative author in Turkey who has steadily gained an international following, Pamuk is also seen by his supporters as a courageous, if sometimes reluctant, champion of free expression.

Speaking from New York, where he is teaching at Columbia University, Pamuk said, "This is first of all an honor bestowed upon the Turkish language, Turkish culture and Turkey itself, as well as on my writings ... which I produced solitary in my room."

Pamuk waved off several questions about the political impact of his award.

"This is a day for celebrating, for being positive. It is not a day for making political comments," he said.

"My writing shows that East and West can combine -- that is what we have to wish for, to hope for. The fact that the image of Turkish culture does not exist in Western literature doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

In novels such as "My Name Is Red" and "Snow," Pamuk, 54, sets modern struggles over personal, cultural and political identity against the backdrops of Turkey's tortured Ottoman past, its wars and the majestic beauty of his native Istanbul.

He subtly draws attention to some of the darkest chapters in Turkish history and infuses his writing with mystical symbols and legends while invoking contemporary clashes between East and West, Islam and secularism -- the essence of Turkey's evolution.

Pamuk's narrative artistry is widely praised, but it is his political activism (which he contends was thrust upon him) that has drawn the most attention recently and which many Turks suspect was behind the Swedish Academy's decision.

In December, Pamuk was put on trial for "insulting the Turkishness" of his country, under Article 301 of the state penal code. The charges stemmed from an interview with a Swiss newspaper in which he spoke of large-scale historical killings in Turkey of Armenians and of the deaths of Kurds in an ongoing military campaign against an insurgency -- topics traditionally taboo in his homeland.

"Thirty thousand Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it," he said in the interview.

The Turkish government does not recognize the early 20th century slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide, and it has long battled separatist aspirations among the nation's Kurdish minority.

Pamuk later noted that he was not offering a definitive contradiction of the official version of history but urging that the matters be discussed.

At his trial, he said he had not insulted Turkey.

"But what if it is wrong?" he said. "Right or wrong, do people not have the right to express their ideas peacefully?"

Within a few months, the case was dropped on a technicality. But it came at an especially delicate time, when Turkey had embarked on talks to be allowed to join the European Union as its first Muslim member. The EU has demanded that Turkey fulfill numerous requirements, including improving its human rights record and assuring freedom of speech and worship.

The Pamuk case drew the most attention, but it was one of dozens involving writers, publishers and scholars who have faced and still face prosecution on similar charges of insulting national identity.

"The hardest thing was to explain why a country officially committed to entry in the European Union would wish to imprison an author whose books were well-known in Europe, and why it felt compelled to play out this drama (as Conrad might have said) 'under Western eyes,' " Pamuk wrote in the New Yorker magazine during the trial.

"What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk worldwide?"

Here in Istanbul, which Pamuk lyrically evokes in his writings, word of the prize spread quickly. Afternoon newspapers carried front-page articles, and his name was sprinkled in conversations aboard commuter ferries plying the Golden Horn and at kebab restaurants where people gathered in the evening to break the Ramadan fast.

However, many Turks greeted the news with mixed feelings. Though Pamuk's honor was seen as a national achievement, it also intensified the sense of being under international siege over the issue of the Armenian genocide.

"Of course we are proud that this prize would go to a Turk," said Gunel Altintas, a poet. "But it's a political decision too, and so it is very difficult in many ways for us to accept."

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